Thursday, March 03, 2011

Evolutionary psychology wars aren't helpful to climate denialists

Climate denialist/skeptics face a problem in trying to argue that 97% of the practitioners in the field are fundamentally wrong in accepting climate change: how likely is it that a field of science could get that screwed up? Generally, denialists don't care about whether the unlikelihood of their claim and whether it suggests they themselves are in the wrong. Instead they just say that climatologists don't understand climatology.

My question is whether this has happened before in modern science. If it hasn't, then denialists have to get us to assume pretty heroically that the scientific process has failed in a way that it's not failed before, and I think it might make us consider whether in fact, the denialists are wrong and the 97% of climatologists are right.

I should note that this isn't about science getting something wrong - that happens all the time. This is about the claim that the field of climatology is fundamentally unsound, which is the basic claim of denialists. And even if it did happen elsewhere, that doesn't mean it's happening now in climatology, but the precedent would make the claim a tiny bit less implausible.

I looked once before at whether modern science engages in conspiracy, in the far smaller group of scientists examining Jupiter's moon Europa and its ice cover, and I didn't think it was helpful to denialists.

So how about another potential example, in the field of evolutionary psychology. This area attracts a lot of controversy, possibly because amateurs try to use it to as a pop-scientific justification of whatever moral belief they advocate, possibly because its supporters sometimes overstate some of their conclusions, and possibly because biologists don't like psychologists encroaching on their turf. But is the field discredited?

The short answer is no, at least not the way that climate denialists think that 97% of climatologists are wrong. Even critics of many papers published on evolutionary psychology think the field can reach and has reached appropriate conclusions, like Jerry Coyne:

Now I don’t oppose evolutionary psychology on principle. The evolutionary source of our behavior is a fascinating topic, and I’m convinced that the genetic influences are far stronger than, say, posited by anti-determinists like Dick Lewontin, Steve Rose, and Steve Gould. Evolved adaptations are particularly likely to be found in sexual behavior, which is intimately connected with the real object of selection: the currency of reproduction. I’m far closer in my views on this topic to Steve Pinker than to Steve Gould. And there are many good studies in the field, so I don’t mean to tar the whole endeavor.

It's also worth noting that compared to climatology, evolutionary psychology is a "soft" scientific field with ethical barriers to experimentation that climatology doesn't experience. Even so, aside from the view of possibly a tiny number of critics, it's not gone as far off the rails as denialists claim has happened for climatology. The denialists are going to have to look somewhere else for a precedent.

Personally, I think evolutionary psychology is fascinating and likely to have significant insights. I think it's facetious to believe that in our psychology, which is crucial to our survival, we'd have escaped the evolutionary influences that affect every other species on the planet. Great apes are clearly smart enough to have differing individual psychologies that must have affected their survival rates over time. Getting deep and subtle insights about human evolutionary psychology will be difficult, but denying that field's validity is as about as smart as climate denialism.


  1. Did you *read* the question that had 97% agreement? The question was: "Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?" Do you seriously think you can find a lot of people - skeptics or not - who disagree with that? All the "lukewarmers" can agree without question; even nearly all the people you'd call "denialists" can agree with at most a small reservation as to what should be considered "significant" or what sort of "human activity" is being talked about. There do exist areas of furious disagreement, but they have absolutely nothing to do with that question.

    If anything, what might need an evpsych explanation is that sort of leaping to conclusions about people who disagree with you - thinking that if somebody disagrees with the high end of IPCC projections it must be because they object to every single bit of the underlying science. Where does *that* come from? What irrational thought pattern makes one leap from "he reaches different conclusions than me" to "he disagrees with 97% of the relevant scientists"? Or more generally conflates "what I believe in" with "what all right-thinking people believe in"?

  2. Yes Glen I did "read" it, and you may be surprised to learn I kind of agree with you. It should have said "human activity is the the predominant factor in changing mean global temperature in the last 50 years."

    Still, out of about 70 practicing climatologists, two disagreed with the statement, and I think it's pretty safe to assume the two are Lindzen and Spencer. I think they read the question as to whether you accept the general IPCC consensus. They represent the denialist/skeptic side, or the people who mostly reject the IPCC conclusions, and that's who I'm discussing.

    As for disagreeing with the high end of IPCC projections, I don't think many skeptics/denialists accept the median 3C for climate sensitivity. If they did, they wouldn't be fighting so hard to stop efforts to reduce emissions.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.